Sakshi Malik brought an end to India’s long wait for a medal at the ongoing Rio Olympics, clinching bronze in the Women’s Freestyle 58kg category with a spirited comeback victory over Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan.
The 23-year-old from Rohtak overturned a 0-5 deficit in a hectic second round to script an 8-5 victory in the bronze medal bout at the Carioca Arena 2 here on Wednesday.
It was a rousing display of fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude from the Indian.
Aisuluu was clearly the superior wrestler in the totally one-sided opening round, displaying impressive strength and technique to take five points and open up a formidable lead.
But Sakshi — who has previously shown a knack of staging strong comebacks — was a totally transformed grappler in the second round, taking eight consecutive points to send the sizable number of Indian fans in the stands into wild delirium.
Sakshi, who had also finished on the podium at the 2015 Asian Championships, created history by becoming the first Indian female wrestler to clinch an Olympic medal.
Kaori Icho of Japan won the gold medal in the category while Russia’s Valeria Koblova — who had defeated Sakshi in the quarter-finals — took the silver.
Eight-time African champion Marwa Amri of Tunisia took home the other bronze medal in the category.
Sakshi’s medal capped another day of heartbreaks for India including an unfortunate injury to Vinesh in the women’s 48kg Freestyle category that forced her out of the competition.
An emotional Sakshi recalled years of sweat and hardwork even as she soaked in the adulation and wild celebrations among the Indian supporters.
“First time a medal has come for women. It’s a success of my 12 years of dedication. I had thought day and night about qualifying and bringing a medal for the country. My hard work of many years has succeeded,” Sakshi said after the bout.
“I have stood up to the hopes of the country for the first medal. I was confident that I can win in the end even being down. The last two hours were the most difficult for me thinking whether the medal will come or not,” she added.
The bronze medal bout was off to a hectic start as Aisuluu tried to force the early initiative with an attempted leg hold but Sakshi defended successfully.
The Kyrgyz grappler displayed impressive strength and was more active in the opening stages which forced Sakshi to go on the defensive.
However, the referee invoked the passivity rule against Sakshi which handed the Kyrgyz the first point.
Aisuluu then made a successful takedown to bag another two points. Aisuluu continued to pile on the pressure and bagged another couple of points with another successful tackle to build up a healthy 5-0 lead at the break.
Sakshi made a superb comeback in the second round, turning a defensive position into offensive to bag two points before flipping the Kyrgyz to bag another couple of points.
With the Momentum firmly behind her, Sakshi continued to pile on the pressure before drawing level with another two-pointer.
With just seconds remaining in the bout, the Indian pulled off another takedown to take the lead and make sure of the win.
Earlier, Sakshi had crashed out of contention for the gold medal after a one-sided 2-9 loss to Valeria in the quarter-finals.
Sakshi, who trailed 0-1 after the first period, made a comeback in the initial minutes of the second period to go 2-1 up.
She, however, failed to maintain the lead as the Russian overpowered her with some incredible moves to take an unassailable 9-2 lead in the dying minutes.
But with Valeria later making it to the final, Sakshi qualified for the repechage round for a shot at the bronze medal.
She started her bid for the bronze in superb fashion by defeating Orkhon Purevdorj of Mongolia 12-3 in the Repechage Round 2 to move within striking distance of a medal.
The Haryana wrestler was too superior for the 22-year-old Mongolian and dominated right from the start.
Sakshi grabbed the early advantage and effected a takedown to take a 2-0 lead.
But a loss of balance from Sakshi allowed the Mongolian to take two points and make a comeback. Sakhshi did catch Orkhon off-guard with an arm-lock towards the end of the first round, but could not capitalise on that.
Sakshi grabbed the initiative right at the start of the second round, baging two points with double leg hold.
But Sakshi’s efforts to preserve her lead by decreasing the pace cost her dearly as the referee invoked the passivity rule against her which allowed Orkhon to bag another point.
Orkhon then tried to go for a leg hold but Sakshi came up with an effective counter-attack to bring the Mongolian down before rolling her over to bolster her lead.
With a comfortable 10-3 lead behind her, Sakshi produced a strong finish by coming up with another take down in the closing seconds.